The focus of kamma should be that actions have consequences in all futures, including the remaining future of this very life, and the futures of all beings who will come after us. We must understand both the benefits of a such a future orientation in this life and in future lives, and we must come to understand the true nature of beings (limited boundaries, which are dependent on specific times and spaces), so that we can see that there is no difference between effects now, in this life, & effects on future lives (which will not be “ours” simply because there is no “you“ or “me” in the larger sense).
We use metaphor to communicate meanings that can’t seem to be captured any other way:
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
This is not a literal truth, but we understand Romeo’s feelings in a way that we otherwise never could. There is a very good set of arguments (by Lakoff and Johnson, e.g.) that all language is based on metaphorical comparisons; after all, how can we define or explain anything without comparing it to something else? But I will say more about that elsewhere.
Kamma, specifically, requires an understanding of the role of metaphor because taking rebirth literally is not required for understanding kamma and its role in liberation. I realize this will be seen as heretical by many devout Buddhists, but for those who cannot embrace a belief based on empircally unverified ideas, it is vital to have an equally strong and motivating reason to believe in ethical continuity, that is, the effect of actions through time. I want to submit that it is possible to hold one’s actions as having effects after the breaking up of one’s physical body, without believing that one specific individual in the future will inherit all the fruits of one’s actions in this life. That is, the “three lives” interpretation of kamma is not necessary for Gotama’s teachings to have their soteriological effects in this life.
This interpretation is part of the cultural legacy of Iron Age India, when natural history or science did not have the tools now available to us. It is part of the Indian view of cosmology that existed well before Gotama’s time. As he did with many existing cultural views, he repurposed the fatalistic Indian view of rebirth, which limited one’s free will to achieving change only through playing one’s social role well enough to achieve a better rebirth (meaning, in that culture, a higher social station, or caste) in a future life.
Gotama saw that ethics could transform us, & improve our experience, in the current life, teaching that one could change one’s fate to a happier one “in this very life” (dhamme parinibbāyanti).1 I believe he was saying, in effect, “The ethical part of this is the key part. Ethics does not arise because of the fact that lives follow upon lives; it is how the choices made now affect future lives—all future lives. Once you see directly in experience the true nature of the self, this will become obvious to you. It is not some self that moves from life to life, but consequences of actions, of unwholesome desires. That is all that is important to know & see.”
For me, this is very important for motivation. Since my twenty-first-century scientifically educated mind cannot embrace the traditional three-lives interpretation of dependent arising and rebirth, I must search elsewhere for a way to integrate sīla, ethics, study and practice. I can do this through seeing in direct experience how Gotama’s teachings can make changes in how I encounter and react to the world of experience. Since I am continually becoming a new being in each moment (or changing the state of my neural networks, if you prefer a neuroplastic understanding of the idea), I do not have to wait until the next life to change my state (or my traits, as the jargon has it). I combine this with the understanding of the self as a temporary or illusionary set of boundaries within the larger flow of consciousness among all beings, including of course all human beings.
Looking behind me in time, I see all the actions, the ethical behavior, that has surely created much of who I am; this includes my own behavior, as well as that of all those who have known me or influenced me in some way; it spreads out beyond that in geometrically increasing ripples of influence to all those who influenced the ones who in turn influenced me. I am not proposing here anything that extends beyond empirically testable kinds of psychological and social influence, as well as the loops of influences created by physical developments (the invention of a new technology, for example) that grow from human psychology and social developments and then in turn influence the minds of future beings.
There is plenty of possibility and power in these ripples and loops of influence to explain my individual eccentricities as well as those of every other human being. Consider, as a light-hearted example, the relationship between humans and cats, from domestication (of humans by cats, of course) through cat videos on the internet. However you might want to qualify the nature of this set of influences, it’s there, and it has considerable power (whether for good or evil I leave up to you; personally I like cats, but perhaps they have arranged things that way). The multiplication effects of all the cultural developments over millennia are easy to imagine in the power of their influence, if not in all their details. We are not really unique in the sense that we imagine (otherwise internet dating sites wouldn’t work…).
Imagine going through a typical day, for instance, and the more subtle aspects of your interactions with other beings, not to mention the obvious ones like intimate partners, co-workers, people you encounter in stores and so on, let alone the vast ghostly corridors of social media and other virtual encounters. In the physical world, there is body language, brief glances of semi-recognition and approval, words with unconcious content—what are popularly known as “micro” psychological effects—all of which have their cumulative impact. We are just beginning to understand the amount of influence these have, and how these might work. They can be positive, negative, neutral or some combination. We leave vast wakes of these ripples in inter-being psychology behind us, constantly. It seems obvious that they exist, and that they are extremely complex (probably ultimately unfathomable in complete detail).
For a long time after beginning to understand and practice Gotama’s teachings, I sat uncomfortably with the traditional views about kamma. Their importance to the role of ethics, the nature of the self, and the potential for progress on the soteriological path was clear. But the lack of a mechanism for carrying the effects, or fruits (phalla), from one life to the next, caused a great deal of cognitive dissonance for me. The longer I have considered the issue, however, the more it has become clear to me that it is not really an issue, if the factors I have just tried to describe are considered.
Gotama himself was typically cautious in his use of language to describe what is going on as kamma moves from life to life. He talks about future beings in the singular sense, but he is also very clear on what this does not mean with regard to kamma. It does not mean the consciousness of an individual survives death.2 It does not mean the personality, as such, survives (this would directly contradict the teachings on non-self, anattā, & self-view, sakkaya diṭṭhi, that latter of which must be left behind to reach liberation). It is not the aggregates (form, feeling or sensation, perception, dispositions, and consciousness).
The most specific word that Gotama uses, when questioned closely about what it is that actually moves from life to life, is craving (taṅhā)3. This seems to fit precisely into the picture I have painted above about the ripples and loops of influence that continually flow among the experiences of beings, both directly and as embodied in their inventions, institutions, and so on. The more deeply I study and practice, the more I consider it, the less effort it takes to imagine that this is exactly how it works. We must let go of our cherished, egocentric notions of who and what we are, to grasp it. We must see that even though we cannot understand it on the mundane level, there will be beings in the future, and they will feel the effects of actions in the present, just as we now feel the effects of actions taken in the past.
Is this not perfectly clear? Do we not either suffer or enjoy the results of what our parents, friends, acquaintences, cultures, nations, governments, technologies, and so on, have done in the past? Can we map the specific acts of kamma by individuals in the past to specific individuals in the present? Not usually. But is this really the important part of this issue? It is, ultimately, the most trivial part; in fact, the deeper one’s understanding of the nature of the individual, the more trivial it becomes, until at some point it simply disappears into the background of seeing yathābhūta, things “as they have come to be.”
1 In “Sakka’s Question,” SN 35, for example.
2 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta, MN 38, & Kutūhalasālā Sutta, SN 44, e.g.
3 See Saṃyutta Nikāya 44.9